Six months ago, Patricia Alston was unemployed and living in a shelter for battered women. Today, she has a job and her own apartment, and thinks her life is only going to get better.
She is one of eight homeless people who have been hired by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore to sweep sidewalks and trim trees in the business district.
"This is the beginning," says Ms. Alston, 37. "I see good things ahead."
Ms. Alston says a local business person has already offered her a part-time cleaning job. She eventually hopes to land a job managing other workers.
The Downtown Partnership, an organization that receives city money and private membership donations to support downtown businesses, started the program last fall as a way to combat both vagrancy and litter. Homeless people referred by city agencies are hired to work on maintenance crews. If they are successful, they will be placed in permanent maintenance jobs with downtown companies.
"It's not a program that's going to solve homelessness," says Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership. "It's just one first step."
Kenneth Lee, 40, was jobless and living with friends when he started in the program. "If you're not working, your self-esteem gets low. This is turning everything back around," he says.
Mr. Lee says people sometimes tell him he's crazy to sweep streets for $4.35 an hour, the starting salary. But he tells them: "You can't just keep sucking up the system. The well is going to go dry."
Although her salary may be low, Ms. Alston is grateful for the job. She had been unemployed and had lived in shelters for more than a year when she learned about the program last October.
Ms. Alston sweeps the sidewalks on Charles Street each weekday. But she does more than keep the streets clean. She gives directions to lost pedestrians, helps the blind and elderly cross the streets and even gives hints to telephone company customers on the best times of day to pay their bills.
In her job, she has met all kinds of people, she says. Some make disparaging remarks or throw trash down in front of her. Others, like the bus drivers she sees regularly, have become her friends.
Occasionally, Ms. Alston says, she runs into homeless people she knew in the past. "I tell them to hang in there."